East London teachers challenge the elitism of Latin

Teachers Sarah Merali-Smith and Alicia Nomgbri have set up the East London Classics Summer School in Homerton

Teachers Alicia Nomgbri and Sarah Merali-Smith have set up the East London Classics Summer School in Homerton - Credit: Smith and Newton Architects, www.smith-newton.com

Two east London teachers are on a mission to make learning Latin more accessible to students from all walks of life.

Teachers Sarah Merali-Smith and Alicia Nomgbri have set up an east London summer school in Hackney which offers a London based intensive revision course for students preparing for their GCSE in Latin.

They describe themselves as not “from the traditional roots that one would expect to be classicists”.

Born in Stoke-on-Trent, Sarah said she did not have the option of studying Greek or Latin but she was drawn to take on classical civilisation at A level.

“I took the subject against the wishes of my parents,” she said.

“I come from a very traditional Indian household, which is quite strict, and my parents would never have supported such a route. That’s always been very difficult.”

The school offers a London based intensive revision course for students preparing for their GCSE in Latin

The school offers a London based intensive revision course for students preparing for their GCSE in Latin - Credit: Smith and Newton Architects, www.smith-newton.com

She went on to read classics at university, completed a master's degree and has now been teaching at private schools for 16 years.

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“It’s been a very interesting experience for me being of an ethnic minority.

"I have always been in a class where I'm the only different one, someone that’s slightly different from everybody else, and the classics community can be very closed and unwelcoming.

"But because my credentials and qualifications have always been very good I have sort of used that almost as a mask.”

Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge Mary Beard has supported the summer school's mission

Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge Mary Beard has supported the summer school's mission and joined students on Zoom to congratulate them on completing the course - Credit: Smith and Newton Architects, www.smith-newton.com

Alicia, whose parents are half Chinese and half Indian went to a state school growing up and also went down the classical civilization route.

Sarah said: “She has had a very similar experience and it's only in the last year or so that the two of us have actually spoken about that to each other – because we both independently been experiencing the same thing."

The pair launched their summer school, and an Easter revision day, earlier this year in 2021.

It coincided with former education secretary Gavin Williamson’s promise to tackle Latin’s “reputation as an elitist subject”.

He announced a new scheme, called the Latin excellence programme, in August 2021 to increase take-up among disadvantaged pupils.

In 2020, The British Council found that the language was taught in less than 3 per cent of state schools compared with almost half of independent schools.

The first summer school was attended by 17 students

The first summer school was attended by 17 students - Credit: Smith and Newton Architects, www.smith-newton.com

“The world of classics has come under a lot of scrutiny and challenges because Latin and Greek are deemed as being subjects that are only really able to be accessed by the privileged,” Sarah added.

“A very exclusive community of predominately white people and we just want to try and put something together that would basically break all of those boundaries.”

The teachers summer school is based in Homerton.

Classics like Latin are highly academic and take a great deal of discipline and focus to study

Classics like Latin are highly academic and take a great deal of discipline and focus to study - Credit: Smith and Newton Architects, www.smith-newton.com

Sarah stated: “We want to make sure that different types of people could access a course like this because there aren’t these opportunities.

"There are a couple of summer schools out there but they are not the sorts of courses that these students would be able to have access to."

The first East London Classics Summer School had 17 students. It included core language lessons and lectures on tomb stone inscriptions, ancient Greek mythology, poetry and more.  

A noun in Latin can have over 32 different variations

A noun in Latin can have over 32 different variations - Credit: Smith and Newton Architects, www.smith-newton.com

While the summer school is more accessible for students in east London it still costs £200 per pupil.

Sarah and Alicia, are therefore trying to acquire more funding and hope to be able to offer full and half bursary's for students in 2022.

Sarah encourages students to take an interest in classic languages as an “opening into a world we aren’t able to access".

She said: "When that door is opened we are allowed to see ancient history, we are allowed to look at classical archaeology and read Plato and Aristotle.”

“It allows us to pause and reflect and consider bigger issues of things like empire, misogyny, gender and race - and the very foundations of these big issues that we can only really look into once we can read the language. 

She continued: "And once you delve into a subject with that added tool kit it just opens up a whole new world of understanding."

To find out more about the East London Classics Summer School visit twitter.com/ELCSS2

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